How to Protect Older Adults from Contagious Illnesses

April 13, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore how vulnerable we all are to public health threats, and especially highlighted the threat of contagious illness to senior citizens. Even in the absence of chronic health conditions, the immune system naturally weakens with age, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. That’s why it’s important to take extra steps to protect older adults from infectious diseases.

In an independent or assisted living community, seniors have the benefit of on-site medical facilities. However, senior living also tends to be a tight-knit community, where many residents live in close proximity, and illnesses can travel from person to person. At Aviva, we’ve taken precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But we also encourage our seniors and their loved ones to give the utmost attention to resident safety in times of a disease outbreak. Here, we share measures that may help keep seniors safe from a contagious illness.

1. Don’t Visit if You’re Sick or Asymptomatic

Whether a senior lives in a single-family home or in a community, avoid visiting if you’re sick or even have suspected symptoms. (According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.) Even if you feel like you have something minor—like a headache or some sniffling—you could be experiencing early signs of a virus or other contagious illness. And while you may feel fine, you could just be asymptomatic and still pass your infection to an elderly loved one. Seniors can be asymptomatic carriers, too. According to a CDC report on asymptomatic carriers, places like skilled nursing facilities (SNF) are particularly vulnerable to rapid transmission. Knowing that some illnesses, like COVID-19, can be spread even when you don’t have symptoms, this can mean one way to stay in touch is by keeping your visits virtual.

2. Find out What Preventative Measures the Senior Community Takes

Whether your loved one already resides in an elderly community or you’re still researching senior living options, don’t hesitate to ask what steps their staff takes to prevent the spread of illnesses. You can also ask about their daily sanitation and cleaning practices. Here are some other questions you might ask about preventative measures:

  • How often do staff clean and sanitize common areas and amenities (tables, chairs, games, etc.)?
  • Is there a housekeeping staff to clean and sanitize residents’ rooms?
  • What measures or precautions does the facility take during peak illness seasons? (This is especially important for assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, where residents depend on caretakers.)
  • Is there ever a time you conduct health screenings before visitors are allowed, or restrict outside visits altogether?
  • What’s the protocol for employees, either caretakers or nurses, who fall ill or get exposed to a contagious illness?

3. Encourage Seniors to Exercise Indoors Alone

Exercise is a key component to maintaining a healthy immune system. According to AARP, studies have shown that regular exercise reduces a person’s risk of catching viruses like colds. Most independent living communities have fitness centers and other features to encourage active living. Things like golf courses, workout rooms, and exercise classes encourage regular physical activity. Prescribed methods of exercise are also offered in skilled nursing or rehabilitation centers. That said, during health crises when people need to self-isolate, seniors should avoid all group activities and instead take their workouts indoors; exercise videos or simple stretching activities like chair yoga provide a way to keep moving. 

4. Eat a Healthy Diet

Many seniors grew up with the adage, “You are what you eat.” While we all know that nutritious food leads to a generally more healthy body, it can be hard to stick to good habits. During stressful times like a pandemic, eating junk food becomes a temptation that seniors should resist. In senior living, a resident may have their own kitchen to prepare healthy meals, plus there are on-campus restaurants and other options for having takeout meals prepared as well as meal delivery options. Either way, it’s a good idea to choose a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains and to avoid fried food or too much meat. According to Harvard Medical School, these healthy habits help to reduce inflammation and fight infection. It’s also important for a senior to drink plenty of water and stay diligent with medications and supplements.

5. Stay in Touch While Practicing Physical Distancing

Research by Psychology Today shows that social connections improve immune function and help the body recover from illness faster. It’s important to maintain strong social bonds, even while following all guidelines for social distancing. If a senior living community is unable to accept visitors due to the heightened risk of a contagious illness, there are still ways residents can keep in touch with friends or family. A simple phone or letter can make someone’s day. Or, use technology to your advantage by video chatting or sharing updates on social media. And if you want even more great ideas to interact with your loved one, check out this activities guide for fun things seniors and families can do over video calling.

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